Frontrunner commuter rail began service between Provo and Salt Lake City yesterday, but while it’ll cost just over $5 for the hour long ride it’ll be completely free to leave your car in the Provo parking lot all day long. Why is that?
With the new train service and accompanying station parking lots, UTA is offering two services: travel and car storage. Both of these services cost UTA money in the form of installation, land, maintenance, security, etc.
There are also plenty of examples of these two services costing users money. Frontrunner itself charges for travel, while parking includes charges where ever there are parking meters or paid lots, or when the cost of a dwelling is higher because it includes parking. “Free” travel — free ride zones, for example — is also relatively common.
In other words, UTA could have conceivably charged for parking. My guess is that there’s some psychology at play here; UTA officials know that if new public transit riders had to pay for the train and parking, they might reject the service. (I would accordingly be astonished if, 10 or 20 years from now, parking at Provo’s station remains free.) So paying for both services is out because of the resulting sticker shock.
But that doesn’t mean the situation couldn’t be flipped: parking could cost money while travel could be the free or at least more heavily subsidized service. Imagine if it cost each driver $7 a day to park but riding to Salt Lake was completely free. It seems impossible, even nonsensical, to think of offering commuter rail to users for free, but it’s no less logical than offering another costly service like parking at no charge. In the end, there’s no reason parking had to get all the benefits.
There are some practical challenges that would come with switching which service UTA offers for free. And eventually as both the demand and supply for parking dwindled free travel would probably disappear — though at that point UTA would have dramatically reduced its operating costs and increased revenue by eliminating a costly giveaway.
But for now, I want to focus on the general problem here: UTA is giving something away and it may well be the wrong thing. After all, driving — which is incentivized by free parking — is less efficient than train travel, which costs. Cars take up more valuable land, they pollute more, they’re less safe, etc. So though it would be a fairly radical move, it might make sense to charge for parking and give away train rides.